Dacula Middle School teacher of the year Derek Tuthill (far left) and Dacula Middle School principal Kimberly Bussey (second from left) pose for a photo with students after extracting a root from the ground during a school beautification event at Dacula Middle School, Friday, Oct. 19, 2018. Students, faculty, volunteers and parents planted plants, decorated plant pots and cleaned up a courtyard at the school. (ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)
Photo: Alyssa Pointer
Photo: Alyssa Pointer

Schools keep trying to keep parents involved

If you have more than one school-age child, attending meetings, parent-teacher conferences or class events can seem like a Herculean task, but new research shows that more parents are finding ways to make it happen.

A report released in September from Child Trends, a nonprofit research organization focused on children, youth, and their families, shows that after nearly a decade of declines, parental involvement nationwide has begun to bounce back. In 2016, the percentages of students whose parents reported attending a general meeting at their child’s school, a parent-teacher conference, or a school or class event reached their highest recorded levels (89, 78, and 79 percent, respectively).

Making parents part of their children’s schooling has been a long-standing goal for educators, in metro Atlanta as elsewhere.

As the new principal of Dacula Middle School, Kimberly Bussey let the community know right away that she expects parents to be active in the school. “We foster positive relationships in a warm and nurturing environment that allow all to thrive. Not only as an educator, but as the mom of two as well, I know that the success of our students depends on the partnerships that are created between school and families,” she said in introducing herself to the cluster.

One event to foster those partnerships was the school’s recent beautification day where parents, students and staff planted flowers and cleaned up debris on campus. Although his children no longer attend the school, custodian Keith Jones volunteered his time as a role model for others.

“It’s good for the students and the parents to see men involved,” he said. “Don’t get me wrong, the women are great, but the men need to do their part as well.”

As an empty-nester, Jones said although he misses the days of school concerts and parent-teacher conferences, he understands how busy lifestyles make it harder for parents to keep up these days.

“I applaud anyone who makes the time to be involved,” he said. “That’s why I love pitching in.”

With so many blended families and children being raised by grandparents, siblings, aunts, etc., “parental involvement” has morphed into “family engagement,” said Lisa-Marie Haygood, executive director for the Cherokee County Educational Foundation.

“The fact that someone shows they care and takes the time to be active in the child’s school means a lot,” she said.

As a former educational consultant with the Georgia School Boards Association, a member of the National PTA Legislative Committee, and the immediate past-president of the Georgia Congress of Parents and Teachers (Georgia PTA), Haygood has had spent decades helping parents help their children.

Haygood cited studies that show family engagement helps bring about success. “It might not be sitting down to a home-cooked meal, but even picking up a rotisserie chicken and talking about your day goes a long way.”

“It’s less realistic to have a stay-at-home mom in the family. Now it’s more about meeting families where they live,” said Haygood. “Technology allows them to keep up with real- time grades, and teachers are very understanding when you can’t make a conference and have to send someone else in a pinch.”

Yolanda Appenzeller has a three children – a preschooler, one in elementary school and a daughter at Dacula Middle School. She suggests that schools find ways to be as communicative as possible.

“There are times when I miss an email and find out later that I could have attended a meeting or a school event, but I didn’t know about it,” she said adding that some teachers use an app called “Remind Me” that sends a text and doesn’t get lost in the sea of emails.

As a single mother, she tries to split her time among three schools, and the oldest usually draws the short straw.

“I’m not surprised that the data shows that as kids get older, parents are involved less,” she said. But when she can help with a field trip or stop by the school on beautification day, she can tell her eighth-grader daughter Xitlaly appreciates it.

“The other kids tell her, ‘Your mom is cool,’ and that means a lot to her self-esteem.”

Another suggestion from Appenzeller is to provide translation for parents when possible. She speaks fluent Spanish and has said she’d be willing to help immigrant families feel more comfortable at school functions.

The data compiled by Child Trends showed that parents who don’t speak English at home have lower rates of attendance at school functions than English-speaking parents; and lower rates of volunteering or serving on a committee. For example, in 2016, 62 percent of students with two parents who do not speak English had a parent attend a school or class event, compared with 71 percent of students with just one parent who does not speak English and 82 percent of students with two parents who speak English.

Parents who do not speak English well may feel uncomfortable getting involved with their children’s schools, or have trouble communicating with school staff. With Gwinnett’s growing Hispanic population, school efforts to engage parents who do not speak English in their native language may improve their level of involvement.

Haygood agreed that however parents can be involved will be a game changer.

“When the child recalls their school experience, memories of how their parents played a role will mean a lot.”

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